The deplorable media misunderstandings of the Roseanne reboot

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
Crikey /
April 05, 2018 /

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For all the snobbish reasons that many of us mock Hollywood rehashes — the cash grab, the dearth of ideas, the cynical exploitation of nostalgia — I was resistant to the Roseanne reboot. Until I watched it. Until I watched it and loved it and felt oddly tugged at seeing Dan and Roseanne move into older age.

In one of the first scenes, patriarch Dan returns home from the drugstore. “Our insurance don’t cover what it used to,” he tells his wife, “so I got half the drugs for twice the price.” Across their kitchen table Dan trades some of his statins for Roseanne’s anti-inflammatories.

I was sucked in immediately. Dan and Roseanne — now in their mid-60s — are, once again, the same age as my parents. My parents might be doing their drugs in Australia — with a little less bemoaning about prices — but the divvying up of pills across the table is something I’ve witnessed more than once.

If I enjoy something, I can always find a way to rationalise. I’m less interested in doing that here though, and instead am keen to spotlight the extent to which the liberal backlash against the Roseanne reboot is misguided. Thinkpieces like Roxane Gay’s New York Times article elect to see the transphobic, racist and small-minded statements of Roseanne Barr as inseparable from her character, Roseanne Conner, thus rendering the show problematic. Notably so in this politically tumultuous era.

Most of my academic work centres on the relationship between the media and society. A point I regularly make — one that gets made over and over again by other scholars — is that the effect of any one media item is almost negligible. None of us are in a bubble only watching episodes of Roseanne on a loop. We’re each exposed to a deluge of news and narrative media content not to mention the torrent of competing social and cultural messages transmitted by those around us. No single media item gets magic bullet power.

So if most of us understand that there’s not really a monkey-see monkey-do relationship between the screen and real life — that such “powerful effects” understandings of the media were debunked in the 1940s — who really cares if Roseanne Conner is a “deplorable”? She’s just a fictional character in a fictional family who cast a fictional vote in a fictional election.

The real Roseanne Barr is, unquestionably, a bona fide nut job — in my teens I read her memoir My Lives so my views in this regard have been fixed for nearly two decades — but in the sitcom she’s just a character in a work of fiction. Giving her more cultural power than we’d give to anyone else in a sitcom — based exclusively on the fact that she supported Trump — is playing into the hands of the network and ignoring all that we know about media.

An argument leveled by many on the left is that having Roseanne support Trump normalises him. I admit, I’m in the camp who hasn’t, and won’t, put “President” before his name; I’m unwilling to dignify this travesty with the honorific. Nonetheless, Trump has been President for over 400 days now; this is our reality.

The normalisation slur is also one applied thoroughly inconsistently. Jimmy Fallon has been in a ratings slump ever since he ruffled Don’s hair and dared “humanise” him on his show in 2016. We were all so ready to call out Fallon — to consider him a hypocrite, to view him as having somehow let us down — and yet we’ve readily cut slack to others who similarly seized on the opportunity to cash in on the Trump spectacle.

In November 2015, Trump was given the keys to Saturday Night Live. SNL isn’t the same as Time’s Person of the Year – i.e. where truly dreadful individuals get to grace the cover. Rather, the show gifts the hosting gig to people widely revered, to people having “a moment” for the good. And there was Trump channeling his inner Drake, just like any other celeb with a movie to hock.

To argue that Fallon or SNL had a role in greasing Don’s way to office not only overestimates the power of TV, but completely fails to account for the fact that Oprah/Obama/Springsteen/Clooney/Cher/LeBron/Pharell/every-other-celebrity-besides-Scott Baio were the wind beneath Hillary’s wings and yet she isn’t kicking her heels off under the Resolute desk. Best we not make too much out of the power of the celebrities.

In the two Roseanne reboot episodes I’ve seen, the role of Trump is actually quite miniscule and has been enormously overblown by too many thinkpieces. This one included. It’s the Roseanne of old updated to account for a zeitgeist boasting a heightened prominence of identity politics and a bastard in the White House. I didn’t know I wanted to watch that. But I do.

© Lauren Rosewarne 2018